Knowing God’s Will

This is a version of the sermon I preached for worship at BBUMC for Sunday, July 12, 2020, the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost. This is part of a summer-long series of sermons from the Book of Genesis, often using texts from the Revised Common Lectionary (but likely a week behind the actual lectionary).

You can view the sermon within the worship service at BBUMC.org or BBUMC’s YouTube Channel. (It’s different there than in the manuscript).

Today’s sermon is based on Gen 24:34-38, 42-50, 57-61.

Murillo, Bartolomé Esteban, 1617-1682. Rebecca and Eleazer, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=46607 [retrieved July 11, 2020]. Original source: http://www.yorckproject.de.

How do we know God’s will and way for us?

Ultimately, this is the big question in today’s passage. God promised that God would bless Abraham with many descendants through his son Isaac. They’d be a blessing to the world. But here’s the problem. Just as Abraham had been without children when God first made this promise, so too is Isaac without children – and he’s even unmarried.

So, Abraham sends his oldest, most trusted servant, likely Eliezer of Damascus (Gen 15:2, 24:2), on a daunting quest: Find a wife for my son Isaac from among my family (check out the family tree). While he doesn’t explicitly say it, the text alludes to Eliezer’s deepest concern: How will I know God’s will – who God wills to marry Isaac? And in this, Abraham’s little help. He simply says,

“[The Lord, God of heaven,] will send his messenger in front of you.”

(Gen 24:7)

At this, we could all say, “Yes, fine, Abraham. You’ve experienced God as God Almighty, the God who sees, hears, and provides, but how will we know God’s will and ways when we experience it?”

For us gathered in worship, this is not just a question for Eliezer of Damascus. It’s a question for each of us as people of faith. Honestly, how do we know God’s will and ways for us, so we can follow God faithfully?

As a Broken Bow United Methodist Church, we talk about “answering God’s call” to know God, offer Christ, serve others, and seek justice (at least we do when we review our Church Conference book in the fall). But, sometimes, do you wonder, as I do, “How do we know for sure what, particularly, God is calling us to?” This season of our lives has brought up this question in relation to when and how to resume in-person worship, as well as our long range planning. And at most meetings of church leaders, it sure would be easier if the Lord’s messenger would clearly, and audibly, show up to the meetings as invited.

But that’s just church stuff. What about in our personal lives? We ask children what they want to be when the grow up. We ask high schoolers where they want to go to continue their studies, what they’ll study, and what their vocation will be. Perhaps we might better ask, “What is God calling you to study, to be, or where to study?” But then we still might get stuck with, “How do I know God’s will for me?” And this question keeps coming up. Unexpected things come up in our lives: an unwelcome diagnosis, a change in employment, or a change in relationship. In these, as well as in our everyday lives, it can be challenging to answer, “What is God’s will and way for me, today, in this circumstance?” Honestly, sometimes we just roll with the punches, but at other points, we may deeply long for God’s direction. And then, we’re struck with the challenge of what we call discernment: How do we know with certainty God’s will and ways for us, so that we can faithfully follow God today?

As we hold that question in our minds, today’s passage offers four practices through which Eliezer and Rebekah’s family discern God’s will for them together. Admittedly, there may be other important practices, such as scripture reading, but we don’t see Eliezer or Rebekah do them. And, there’s one other thing this text doesn’t address: God inspired this text within a highly patriarchal culture and it deeply reflects that culture. We may have plenty of scriptural grounds upon which to critique the patriarchy of this passage, but that’s for a different sermon. For now, let’s listen to the text to see how Eliezer discerns God’s will.

First, Eliezer prays for discernment, essentially, God, show me your will and ways. Our passage picks up in the middle of the story, but as soon as he arrives at the well in Abraham’s homeland, he prays to God (vv. 11-14). As a servant, and if it’s Eliezer of Damascus, it’s likely that he was from a different culture and faith. And yet, he prays to the “Lord, God of my master Abraham” (v. 12). Before he finishes praying, Rebekah comes up, offers him water, and then waters his camels, just as he had prayed. God began to reveal God’s will and way through prayer.

Second, our passage includes a great deal of storytelling. Eliezer recounts the scene at the well, which Rebekah had done just before he got to her home (v. 28). But he also recounts the ways God had been active in the lives of Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac up to this point. In this, he’s testing the Spirit’s revelation through his life experiences, and he’s inviting Rebekah’s family to be partners in his discernment.

Third, he invites confirmation from others. Even after sharing his stories of God’s leading, and his prayer experience – his inklings of God’s will and ways for them – he’s still not sure. The proof will be in the pudding: Will Rebekah’s family agree to the marriage to Isaac, he asks them? After hearing his stories, our passage says,

“Laban and Bethuel both responded, ‘This is all the Lord’s doing. We have nothing to say about it. Here is Rebekah, right in front of you. Take her and go. She will be the wife of your master’s son, just as the Lord said.’ ”

Genesis 24:50, CEB

In this, God reveals God’s will and ways through the affirmation and encouragement of his discernment partners.

And fourth, Eliezer and Rebekah test their discernment by stepping out in faith. The day after they meet, Eliezer wants to return immediately to Abraham, but Rebekah’s mother and brother want them to wait a week or so. And so, Rebekah’s mother and brother, in a surprise move, say, “Summon [Rebekah], and let’s ask her opinion” (v. 57). It’s up to her to declare if she thinks God’s will and ways are in this engagement plan, and she says, “I will go” (v. 58). She steps out in faith toward that which she believes God is calling, and in so doing, God reveals God’s will, so they can follow faithfully.

As I was thinking about this ancient engagement story, I began to think about the church’s most recent wedding couple – Katie and Carson. So, I called them and asked, “How did you know God was really calling you to get married?” And, I was amazed at the ways their story included the same things as our passage.

They talked about how they and others prayed for discernment. When Katie and Carson met, Katie was reluctant to be wooed. But Carson’s persistence led Katie to pray for God to open her heart and help her trust Carson, if it was God’s will for them to be together.

After that first meeting at the bar and grill, and as they got to know each other, they both started sharing their story with others: with their mothers, a few close friends, and a grandma. They recounted how neither had expected to go out and be there that night. And Katie talked about how she experienced a physical sort of spark when they began to dance together. They told the story to test it, to see if God’s will really was in their experiences, and they invited partners into their discernment process.

Through their story sharing, their discernment partners sensed the same thing Katie and Carson sensed. They interpreted these stories as affirmations of God’s will and ways for them, and they encouraged Katie and Carson to explore their relationship.

And so, Katie and Carson stepped out into the unknown of a new relationship. They danced. They talked. They met up again. And as they stepped deeper into their relationship, they sensed God more and more clearly calling them to be together and to be married.

It is a given in our faith that God calls us to be a certain kind of people, and to act in certain ways. God calls us to follow God’s will and ways faithfully, but the ongoing challenge of this calling is discernment – knowing God’s will and way for us, today. When the church is trying to discern the best paths for ministry, when we’re choosing careers or colleges, when we’re faced with unexpected life turns, and when we wake each day, God reveals God’s will and ways for us, so we can follow faithfully.

God reveals God’s will and ways for us through a few simple practices, just as God did for Eliezer and Rebekah, and for Katie and Carson. First, God reveals God’s will and ways through personal prayers for discernment – the “God show me the way” prayers. Second, God reveals God’s will and ways through story sharing with trusted others as discernment partners. Third, God reveals God’s will and ways through the encouragement and affirmation of others. And fourth, God reveals God’s will and way when we step out in faithful action. Through these practices, God reveals God’s will and ways for us, so that we can follow God faithfully. May it be so.

Reflection Questions

  1. Think about a time you were trying to discern God’s will. What did you do? Did you do any of the things that Eliezer or Katie and Carson did? What else did you do?
  2. How often do you think about “knowing and doing God’s will?” It’s possible for us to go through long stretches without giving God’s will much thought (e.g., we strive and discern God’s will into a vocation, but then we go along with the assumption that we’ve arrived and don’t need to seek God’s will anymore). Has this been the case in your life? Is this the best way for you to live? Do you feel good about this? What can you do differently today?
  3. Seeking discernment for a vocation – whether as a job, or in a relationship like marriage – are brought up in this sermon. What other, more everyday, examples of needing and working through discernment are closer to your reality today? Could any of these four practices help you?
  4. Obviously, this sermon develops the idea of discernment through the events of Genesis 24. What else does God say to you through this passage about God, about the origins of the people of God, and/or about our relationship with God? (God’s faithfulness and creativity might be worth pondering in relation to this text).
  5. If you got caught up in the patriarchy of the text (of basically treating women as voiceless commodities), what scriptural grounds do you find to critique, explain, or justify this reality in this passage?
  6. In this passage, everything is fairly neat and tidy in terms of the four practices: a seemingly explicitly clear answer to prayer; a receptive group of discernment partners; encouragement by others; and a willing partner to step out in faith. What stories in the Bible, or in your life, don’t include all the neat and tidy revelations of God’s will? (I think of Job, as well as pieces of King David’s story). What do we do when these four practices don’t all align? How do we persist in the process of discernment?

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